Whoa. Didn't see that coming!
Honestly, I'm not sure how much I'm gonna have to say about "Game On," tonight's game-changing Homeland episode, since most of my notes got digitally tossed out the window during that final scene. Carrie's entire storyline this season – going off her meds, going to the press, getting sold out by Saul, getting committed, fighting to get out – was a ruse that she and Saul concocted to attract enemy agents in the market for a weak CIA asset to exploit. This was a deep cover assignment subterranean enough to make even Brody blush. And the revelation, accompanied by a tearful rapprochement between the once-close comrades in arms, was a moment of jaw-dropping surprise – and, for Homeland, resounding success.
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Suddenly, many of the show's season-long weaknesses, which I've spent an awful lot of time complaining about, get an explanation. Saul's willingness to throw Carrie to the wolves, his short temper with his subordinates, his confidence in the Javadi theory – it all makes sense now that we know what he and Carrie were up to all along. So too does the willingness of Carrie, a seasoned field operative and a veteran psych patient, to suddenly play ball with the enemy, something she wouldn't even do when she was in love with one. And on a higher level, the reveal gives us the welcome sense that Homeland really does know where it's headed again.
So yeah, the twist solves a lot of the show's recent problems. But the problem with twists in general is that they suggest that art can be "solved" at all. Too many twists flip your understanding of what you just watched, but go no further – now that you know what the truth is, the matter is settled. But good art is not a puzzle to be solved, a code to be cracked, the storytelling equivalent of sudoku. Homeland's twist works because it raises as many questions as it answers. How much control did Carrie have over her symptoms? How in touch with the reality of the deception did she remain at her most manic? How much of her indignation with Saul for revealing her bipolar disorder and her affair with Brody to the world was real, and how will it affect their relationship moving forward? How much control did Saul really have over how Carrie was handled? And perhaps most importantly given the series' conception of itself as a bad romance between Carrie and Brody, were her quixotic attempts to clear his name just part of this long con, or does she still care enough about him to try to vindicate him – or, for that matter, to track him down in his Caracas prison?
It's all meaty stuff, and Homeland's already chewing on it. We've seen that, as happy as she was to have successfully pulled off the plan, Carrie was still legitimately traumatized by her time in the hospital, and still hurt that Saul didn't get her out of there quicker. Moreover, her savage "fuck you, Saul" when he came to visit her in the psych ward now takes on fascinating new layers of meaning, given their mutual willingness to sacrifice her in this way for this goal. The lingering effects of the damage to her mental health and to her reputation remain to be seen as well. After tonight, Homeland's a much richer show.
That's not to say it isn't still shaky in spots. I don't know what the hell they're thinking with this Dana storyline, for example. It's tough to believe that a girl who was traumatized by her involvement in a hit-and-run accident would smoke a j behind the wheel of a stolen car she used to break her new beau out of the mental hospital, and it's tough to believe that the writers would saddle her with yet another bad-boy boyfriend, one who likely murdered his brother to boot. And how did that work in treatment, exactly? Dana clearly has no clue, which means the kid presented his brother's death as a straightforward suicide in their group therapy sessions, which means either the hospital staff knew he was lying and didn't care or had never been informed of the truth themselves by the D.A., neither of which makes any sense at all.
And Homeland still has a big problem with turning its antagonists into cartoon villains. Mr. Franklin, the smirkingly sinister lawyer who makes contact with Carrie and looks like an evil mirror-universe Conan O'Brien, is somehow omnipotent and omnipresent, able to tail a CIA operative and break into her apartment with ease. And my god, that absurd scene with Leland Bennett, the partner at the law firm that recruits Carrie. From his ridiculous speech praising Iran's strict eye-for-an-eye policy with regards to terrorism ("My job is to make arguments," he says; he never says they have to be good arguments) to basically coming right out and saying his client was the boss of the six slain terrorists behind the Langley bombing, he was both an unconvincing caricature of an unscrupulous lawyer and laughably transparent about his criminal activities to a woman who, whatever else she may be, is still a CIA counterterrorism expert. Slow down, buddy!
But both the twist and the relatively restrained and suspenseful way the show built up to it (Virgil's signal to Carrie that he'd been compromised, a simple and cryptic "Say hi to your mom for me," was far more thrilling than the show's umpteenth surprise shootout) are supremely satisfying signs of life for a show that needed them badly. Homeland may never be a big-questions show again, but a genuinely intelligent, character-driven political thriller would be most welcome, and tonight the show lived up to that ripe potential. Game on indeed.
Last Week: Leaning Tower